By Larry Birns and Dr. Frederick B. Mills
On May 11th, a joint DEA-Honduran anti-narcotics unit based at Forward Operating Base Mocoron launched an early morning operation against alleged drug smugglers in the Miskito Coast region. In the pre-dawn darkness, helicopter gunners and soldiers on the ground reportedly fired upon a boat on the banks of the Patuca River, killing four of the passengers aboard. It was later discovered that the boat was simply a passenger vessel, and there is mounting credible evidence and a Honduran military investigation that indicates the passengers were not involved in drug smuggling. The rush to judgment, however, and the manner in which early press reports used anonymous, “official” sources that characterized the Miskito people in general terms as criminals, points to another casualty of the 30-year-old War on Drugs: the truth.
The dubious operation showcased a new model of drug interdiction based on counter-insurgency tactics developed and perfected by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. The methods utilized in the operation should not come as a surprise, as there were signs that a significant shift in methodology, designed to bring the war to the smugglers in Honduras, was in the making. In a May 5th, 2012 New York Times article, “Lessons of Iraq Help U.S. Fight a Drug War in Honduras,” Thom Shanker reported that the U.S. DEA recently set up three forward operating bases—Mocoron, Puerto Castilla, and El Aguacate—in remote areas of Honduras in order to implement “small-footprint missions with limited numbers of troops, partnerships with foreign military and police forces that take the lead in security operations, and narrowly defined goals, whether aimed at insurgents, terrorists or criminal groups that threaten American interests.”[i]
According to Shanker, Forward Operating Base Mocoron targets the Miskito Coast as a “red hot” area for drug smuggling.[ii] The indigenous Miskito people, however, have protested the attack, and refuse to be characterized as criminals; they are understandably unwilling to take on the collateral damage of such operations, or be wrongly accused of complicity.
In the immediate aftermath of the killings, a number of Honduran and some anonymous U.S. officials cast aspersions of guilt on the passengers of the boat; spokespersons for the State Department and the U.S. embassy in Honduras asserted that DEA agents played only an “advisory role” in the mission.
Anonymous U.S. “officials” immediately provided a narrative justifying the collateral damage, or, to put aside euphemism and be frank, the killing of two pregnant women and two children, and the wounding of several others who were on the passenger boat on the banks of the Patuca River. For example, in a May 17th article, Washington Post reporter William Booth refers to anonymous “U.S. officials, representing law enforcement agencies, and diplomats who have been briefed on the mission.” These anonymous officials made a case against the innocence of the victims: “The U.S. officials said it was not unusual for local authorities to work with smugglers and also said they wondered why innocent civilians would be on the water in the middle of the night.”[iii] The same day, New York Times reporter Damien Cave quoted such anonymous officials as saying, “There is nothing in the local village that was unknown, a surprise or a mystery about this. What happened was that, for the first time in the history of Ahuas, Honduran law enforcement interfered with narcotics smuggling.” Moreover, even before the Honduran army had a chance to investigate, Honduran President Porfirio Lobo was vilifying the communities of the Miskito Coast: “We have a problem in the Miskito Coast because the community turns out en masse to defend the drug traffickers because of their situation, living in structural poverty.”[iv]
Leading the push against this falsified narrative were those affected among the Miskito community—the Ahuas Mayor, Lucio Vaquedano, witnesses and survivors to the operation, and other Ahuas residents. Their message was clear: the victims were not drug smugglers. In response to the accusations made by both anonymous officials representing U.S. interests and the Honduran state, Miskito leaders hurriedly issued this statement: “For centuries we have been a peaceful people who live in harmony with nature, but today we declared these Americans to be persona non grata in our territory.”
Did the U.S. media strategically fail to account for the Miskito region and culture and omit a possible alternative view on the presence of boats on the Patuca River at such a late hour? They could have consulted anthropologist Rosemary Joyce, who points out, “The Miskitu or Moskito people who bore the brunt of this attack occupy an area of Honduras where there are no highways: the rivers are their roads. Indeed, they are part of a coalition fighting hard against Honduran government plans to dam the Patuca river for hydroelectric power.”
Indeed, the Patuca River has been used for centuries by indigenous peoples to transport goods and communicate with neighboring villages. Joyce notes, “The boat that was fired on indiscriminately was part of this local transport system, which is why so many people of mixed ages and sexes were victims. Boats like these ply the waterways bringing people to and from centers where they shop and seek services, where they sell the fruits of their labor as fishermen to gain the money to eke out a living.”[v]
So there is a reasonable counter-narrative to the one initially disseminated by the “anonymous sources” and President Lobo: the passenger boat was conducting its business, was not smuggling drugs, and had every right to be on the Patuca River any hour of the day or night.
Aside from the Miskito people, there has been pushback from the human rights and drug reform community. Regarding the attack, Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance stated, “DEA agents are never permitted to be involved in the killing of innocent people, whether or not they are in pursuit of criminal suspects. What happened in Honduras appears to have crossed the line—an action that was not approved by the U.S. Congress—and is, ultimately, unethical.”
José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division, said: “It is critical that both Honduran and U.S. authorities ensure that the killings are thoroughly investigated to determine whether the use of lethal force was justified. If evidence demonstrates that security forces violated international standards, they must be held accountable.”
Finally, Congressman Howard Berman (D-California) stated: “I have consistently expressed deep concerns regarding the danger of pouring U.S. security assistance into a situation where Honduran security forces are involved in serious human rights violations,” adding that “the problems are getting worse, not better, making such a review [of U.S. security assistance to Honduras] all the more urgent.”[vi]
Honduran and U.S. authorities were quick to respond to such criticisms, moving rapidly toward damage-control efforts. While anonymous sources continued to place guilt on the victims, by virtue of their being Miskito or simply being on the river at night, the State Department attempted to distance the DEA from the shooting. At a press conference on May 17th, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland emphasized the advisory role played by the U.S.[vii]
QUESTION: …can you tell us exactly what the State Department’s role in this incident in Honduras involving the DEA was?
NULAND: Yeah. Just find my things here. So as you know, we support counter-narcotics interdiction not only in Honduras but throughout the Central American area. We do this through our program SICA, the Central American Integration System. So under the program that we use, we obviously strictly adhere to U.S. law. In this particular operation on May 11, the U.S. DEA was involved only in a supporting role. We did not use force. No U.S. personnel fired any weapons. We were involved purely supporting and advising. The units that we support are comprised primarily of host country—in this case, Honduran—law enforcement officers. They were trained, they were vetted, as part of this program we work on together.
QUESTION: Well, does that mean that they advised them to open fire on a canoe carrying civilians with a pregnant woman and—
NULAND: Well, I highly—
QUESTION: Well, I don’t understand—you say they’re in an advise and support role. So what did they advise and support? Did they—
NULAND: Well, again, I—
QUESTION: Did they tell — did they say, hey, this looks like a good target; shoot it?
NULAND: Well, first of all, as I understand it, the Honduran authorities are taking—are doing a broad investigation of this incident to evaluate what exactly happened and how it happened. So I think we need to let that go forward. With regard to the precise actions in an advisory role that the U.S. folks played, I can’t speak to that. I’m going to send you to the DEA for more on that, but—
QUESTION: OK, but they were—
NULAND: But my—but the point I wanted to make here is that our guys don’t fire in these operations. They didn’t in this one. With regard to the preplanning of the particular operation, I’m going to send you to the agency that was in the lead.
So, the dominant “official” U.S. narrative during the aftermath of the attack combined the anonymous line, that the dead were guilty of drug smuggling, and the attributable line, that the DEA did not fire its weapons and that the operation was under investigation by Honduran and U.S. authorities. The counter-narrative, informed by credible reports of survivors and witnesses on the ground, the statements by the Ahuas mayor, and a local legislator, in tandem with the investigation by the Honduran military and a more informed understanding of life along the Patuca River, makes the case that the dead and wounded were innocent victims of an anti-narcotics operation gone bad.
It was the May 19th New York Times reporting by Damien Cave that was among the first to expose the hollowness of the official (but anonymous) U.S. narrative by using reports from the ground in Ahuas.[viii] (Cave is now vindicated for his earlier use of anonymous sources.) These reports, which included the testimony of survivors at the hospital, the family of those killed, and an army investigator, supports the earlier testimony of the Ahuas mayor and others from the area that the victims were innocent. (Of course, even if they were not innocent, it is not clear that killing them would have been justified.)
The New York Times article gave some indication that the Honduran investigation was about to depart from the “official,” but anonymous, U.S. line. Cave writes, “But residents and officials in this poor town tell a different story, and an official report, scheduled to be issued on Saturday by the Honduran Army, has also concluded that four innocent people were killed.” Cave also quotes Colonel Servio Arita, the Honduran military officer who led the investigation: “It’s terribly sad,” he said. “It was an error.”
At this writing (May 22nd), Fox News Latino reports that “An investigation by the Honduran military based in nearby Puerto Lempira concluded that the agents fired on the civilians by accident, killing four and wounding four, said Col. Ronald Rivera Amador, commander of the Honduran Joint Military Task Force-Paz García.”[ix] The report also points to allegations by residents that North Americans participated in a subsequent raid on village homes.
This botched operation raises important geo-political policy questions about the War on Drugs, continued U.S. security assistance to the Honduran golpista regime despite its abysmal record on human rights, and the narratives used in the Western press to frame this brutal and unprovoked attack on Honduran citizens.
Amidst the finger-pointing, one thing is clear: the War on Drugs has been brought to the Misquito coast region of Honduras, ostensibly a major transit point for drugs moving northward from South America. Drug smugglers use the remote interior of Honduras to house landing strips with access to rivers with outlets to the coast, providing the cover they desire. In this so-called “war,” success is measured in metric tons of drugs rather than body count. Nevertheless, the body count in Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Colombia has led to a growing consensus in Latin America that the “war” ought to be re-evaluated and strategies other than militarization be considered. The hemisphere’s War on Drugs is being lost not on military grounds—killing can go on indefinitely—but, rather, on political and social grounds, as a growing number of people in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States are no longer willing to accept the collateral human and economic damage this “war” brings.
It is important to determine the DEA’s precise role in the operation and in the follow-up raids on village homes, and, of course, there are larger policy questions at stake, too. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs calls for Congressional hearings to examine both the details of the May 14th operation in the Miskito Coast territory, and the overall security cooperation between Honduras and the United States.
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Larry Birns, Director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, and Dr. Frederick B. Mills, Senior Research Fellow, with additional contributions from Research Associate Zachary Petroni .